Remedies for the Distracted Mind

This article is part of our special issue “Connected State of Mind,” which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. View the complete issue here.

Cognitive neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen make a convincing case for what you may have already been thinking: your brain is not well adjusted to our engaging—and distracting—modern world. But in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Gazzaley and Rosen aren’t panicking—they’re being pragmatic. In part I of their book, they explain how our evolved ability to set high-level goals naturally collides with our ability to control our attention, working memory, and goal management, making us especially vulnerable to distractions. Part II shows how this collision has intensified in recent years. And in Part III, partially excerpted and adapted below, Gazzaley and Rosen show you what the science says you can to do harness your distracted mind. - DJ Neri, Editor

Whether working on a critical report at the office or a school assignment due the next day, we are all faced with a constant stream of distractions and interruptions. In the office we often juggle our work assignments between messages from those pink “While You Were Out” slips sitting atop our desk or responding to urgent email requests while trying to craft an important report. We believe that we’ll be able to manage everything at the same time, and maybe even more productively.

A barrage of interrupting email messages, texts, Snapchats, and notifications of social media posts equally beckon a student studying at home to switch attention from the less interesting work at hand. Add to that the research showing that a large portion of our interruptions come not from outside alerts but from internal pulls to check in with our virtual world, and it is no wonder why we all struggle to stay focused. Here are some strategies to use when you are faced with a critical assignment and an environment that constantly interrupts your thoughts.

↑ Metacognition

By now, you should appreciate how the limitations of our Distracted Mind impact our performance on critical assignments. We’ve seen this impact on students: multitasking while studying predicted a lower GPA, using technology in the classroom led to lower test scores and productivity across all grade levels ranging from elementary school to college, and engaging in interfering technology in the classroom was associated with an increase in high-risk behaviors for college students. In the workplace a seemingly brief interruption can lead to nearly half an hour off task. Disrupted work may be completed faster but at the cost of a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and increased effort.

It is important for you to truly appreciate how much time you are actually spending on different online or smartphone activities. Try TrackTime or RescueTime for your computer; and Checky, Moment, Instant, or Menthal will alert you to your daily smartphone use.

↓ Accessibility

A major problem in completing critical assignments, especially on a computer, is the constant availability of that most sought-after commodity: information. Here are some suggestions to help you reduce the accessibility. Begin by setting up your work environment to avoid being distracted and interrupted. This is the most difficult and challenging part of the process. Limit yourself to a single screen. Yes, multiple screens are nice for spreading out your work, but they create distractions. In addition, put away all nonessential work materials on your desk, leaving only paper materials that you absolutely need to complete a task. When that is done, get rid of those distracting books and notes. Whenever possible simply find a quiet environment devoid of other people and the presence of interruptions. If you must work in a noisy environment such as a coffee shop, consider wearing noise-canceling headphones. If you are on an airplane flight, consider using those headphones, and also make a conscious decision as to whether you are going to get Internet access.

The next step is to decide which programs or apps you are going to need open to complete the task and close down all others. Don’t just minimize them: really shut them down. Minimized icons beckon to you to open them, and that draws your attention, if only momentarily, away from your task. If you need to access websites to perform your work, open only one at a time. Whenever possible, do not use tabs; and when you are done with a website, shut it down it rather than minimizing or keeping it in your browser. Open but minimized apps and tabs are more accessible than those that are closed, even if they appear only trivially so, and thus they facilitate switching.

Because of its ubiquity, email has proven to be a special case in aggravating a Distracted Mind. You may find it difficult to shut email down, but it is essential that you do so to remove the temptation to respond to the “ding” alert of an incoming message. As we now know, it can take you up to twenty or thirty minutes to return to your work once you allow an interruption. In an interesting New York Times article, Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology in Changing Our Minds for the Better, argued that we need to end the “tyranny of 24/7 email.” Thompson provides examples of major companies such as Daimler, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Telkom who have adopted policies that place clear limits on after-hours email. Edelman, a global public relations firm based in Toronto, has a 7-to-7 rule that discourages employees from sending email messages before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. This is not an unreasonable personal strategy to adopt to decrease the accessibility of email to your brain.

What else can you do to end the 24/7 tyranny of email? A recent study by Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia provides a starting point. The researchers divided 124 adults into two groups. For the first week of a two-week study, Group 1 was told to check their email as often as they could while Group 2 was told to just check their email three times a day. For the second week, the groups switched strategies, and Group 1 was asked to check email only three times a day while Group 2 was directed to check as often as they could. Results indicated that when participants—a mixture of college students and community adults— checked only three times a day they reported less stress, which predicted better overall well-being on a range of psychological and physical dimensions.

Based on findings that people are checking their email (and text messages and social media) all day long plus the results of this study that show limiting access to email provides emotional and physical benefits, you can follow the advice of author and McGill University professor Daniel Levitan, who urges people to check electronic communications only at certain times of the day.

“If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day. Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’re doing.

What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to leave your email program off than to hear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.”

“If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods.”

Once you have limited the accessibility of interrupting computer screens and programs, notably communication treadmills like email and messages, you should silence your smartphone. Turn off all alerts of any kind, including vibrations, and, if you still feel the pull, move it to another room. If you need the security of knowing it is close at hand, then try to keep it out of view, or at least turn it upside down; keep it away from your direct reach, perhaps on the other side of the room. A recent study by Professor Bill Thornton and his colleagues at the University of Southern Maine demonstrated that when performing complex tasks that require our full attention even the mere presence of the experimenter’s phone (not the participant’s phone) led to distraction and worse performance. In the same study, the presence of a student’s silenced phone in a classroom had an equally negative impact on attention.

Finally, there are apps that will help you control your environment such as SelfControl, Freedom, KeepMeOut, Cold Turkey, FocalFilter, FocusMe, Training Wheels, LeechBlock, TinyFilter, Anti-Social, Freedom, and Stay-Focused. These apps block specified websites for a set amount of time or limit your daily use of stipulated websites. If you are constantly checking social media, programs such as Concentrate or Think can be set up to only allow you to open certain tools for certain tasks, thereby limiting potential distractors; FocusWriter, WriteRoom, or JDarkRoom block out all programs that are not directly related to writing reports or school papers. If you find yourself writing an email and then getting lost in your inbox, consider the app Compose, which lets you write and send an email without ever viewing your inbox.

↓ Boredom

Let’s face it: working on critical assignments can be boring sometimes, especially when the alternative is so much more appealing—high-definition videos, immersive video games, and endless social media connections that are just a click away. One strategy to decrease boredom while working on an assignment is to spend some of your computer time standing rather than sitting. You can simply raise your computer by putting it on top of a box or you can even purchase a treadmill desk that allows you to stand or walk at your discretion. This has the added benefit that walking rather than sitting increases blood to the brain during challenging cognitive control tasks. You can also listen to music, particularly songs you enjoy, as an easy way to increase your mood while focusing on a single task, as well as improve cognitive task performance. Listening to familiar music also has been shown to reduce stress in medical and dental patients while at the same time increasing the efficiency of the medical professionals. Of course, this has to be managed with the potentially distracting impact of external stimulation, even of music, on performance.

Technology may be decreasing the time associated with the onset of boredom when single tasking as a result of our ever-escalating exposure to pervasive, high-frequency reward feedback; that is, the rapid pace of video games, texts, and email traffic is changing our tolerance for slower-paced activities. One strategy we propose to overcome this is to gradually increase time on task before allowing yourself to take a break. The idea is that by using time-delayed onset of breaks as rewards, you can take baby steps into building a greater tolerance for slower-paced reward cycles. You control the breaks, rather than the breaks controlling you.

Even if breaks do not actually make your assignments less boring, the positive effects of combating fatigue and reducing stress will maintain focus, as the overall time engaged in your assignment becomes more rewarding.

When it comes to taking breaks, it is important to note that not all of them are created equal. Here are some thoughts on how we might use particularly effective breaks to stay on the primary task longer before boredom wins the battle. As University of Illinois psychology professors Atsunori Ariga and Alejandro Lleras explain: “Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused. From a practical standpoint, research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!” So, even if breaks do not actually make your assignments less boring, the positive effects of combating fatigue and reducing stress will maintain focus, as the overall time engaged in your assignment becomes more rewarding.

Here are some ideas based on research studies for planning restorative, stress-reducing breaks, each of which will take you only a few minutes.

  • Exercise—even for only twelve minutes—facilitates brain function and improves attention, as discussed in detail in chapter 10.
  • Train your eyes using the 20–20–20 rule: every twenty minutes take a twenty-second break and focus on objects twenty feet away. This changes your focal distance from inches to many feet and requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to constant attention.
  • Expose yourself to nature. Consider using at least part of your break to get away from technology and spend a few minutes in a natural setting. Research has shown that just ten minutes in a natural environment can be restorative; even viewing pictures of nature can be restorative, as discussed in chapter 10.
  • Daydreaming, staring into space, doodling on paper, or any activity that takes you away from performing a specified task activates the “default mode network”—a network of interacting brain areas that most often indicate that you are daydreaming, thinking creatively, or just mind wandering—which is restorative for attention.
  • Short ten-minute naps have been shown to improve cognitive function. Longer naps work, too, as seen in a study of pilots who improved their reaction time after taking a thirty-minute nap.
  • Talking to other human beings, face to face or even on the telephone, reduces stress and has been shown to improve work performance.
  • Laugh! Read a joke book, look at comic strips, read a funny blog. A Loma Linda University study found that older adults who watched a funny video scored better on memory tests and showed reduced cortisol and increased endorphins and dopamine, meaning less stress and more energy and positive feelings.
  • Grab something to drink and a small snack.
  • Read a chapter in a fiction book. Recent research shows major brain shifts when reading immersive fiction.

The bottom line is to pay attention to what you choose to do when you take a break at work, between classes at school, or have a few moments to put your feet up and relax at home (and this should really not always include your grabbing your smartphone, for all the reasons that we have discussed in this book!). Whatever relaxes you and takes you away from your overstimulating technological environment will help you reengage with greater arousal, more capacity for attention, and less susceptibility to being interrupted.

↓ Anxiety

Technology has induced anxiety associated with FOMO, which then causes you to interrupt your work and reorient your attentional resources to the detriment of your performance on that all- important task. The strategies we learned in the previous scenario can also be applied here. Start by setting expectations; inform your colleagues that you have a new plan in which communications happen in pre-established intervals. There are many ways to do this, but here is what we recommend.

First, send out an email (or text) to anyone that you connect with on a regular and continuing basis. Explain that you are working under a “90–20 plan” (or perhaps one of the plans we will discuss below) and that you will be off the grid for ninety minutes and then will check and answer all communications during your break time. If you regularly respond immediately on social media, post a notice there about your new work plan. Second, at the beginning of your first week of implementation, set up an automatic reply that spells out your plan. After a week most people will get it. Third, if you are working in an environment where other people also work (office, library, home) post a red sign that says “No Interruption Zone” and provide a time that you will be available. Make a green sign that says, “I Am Available Now to Be Interrupted.” If necessary, you can also use apps to automatically reply to texts and phone calls and allow emergency calls through. This approach will diminish anxiety from FOMO by allowing you to not expect communication all of the time and to know that the critical ones will get through. Even if it is not effective in preventing your entire professional and social world from contacting you except when you want them to (the reality is that is not going to happen), it will start to diminish anxiety as you get used to a sparser, more controlled communication environment.

Technology has induced anxiety associated with FOMO, which then causes you to interrupt your work and reorient your attentional resources to the detriment of your performance on that all- important task.

Here are two other options to consider that target anxiety in a more general manner. Consider engaging in meditation and mindfulness practices, as discussed in chapter 10, for its impact on the brain. A recent Johns Hopkins University meta-analysis of forty-one randomized, controlled mindful meditation trials including 2,993 participants demonstrated moderate effect sizes for reducing anxiety. Also, as previously discussed, engaging in a physical exercise is a great idea as meta-analyses of exercise programs with healthy adults found effects in reducing anxiety and increasing overall quality of life. These results suggest the possibility that meditation and exercise may also diminish FOMO that drives many of us to constantly check in with technology, but this still needs to be validated with research.

It should be clear that if you are having trouble keeping yourself from constantly being interrupted by technology, you are not alone: you are a typical modern-day high-tech user. We have provided you with numerous strategies to combat this negative influence on completing important assignments. These strategies focused on the four factors of the MVT model, helping you alleviate the stress on your cognitive control limitations: improving metacognition, decreasing the accessibility of interruptive technologies, decreasing your boredom, and minimizing your anxiety of missing out. There are undoubtedly other situations in which you find your attention being pulled away, and these same strategies should work to benefit you there as well. Regardless of the scenario, the suggested strategies are meant to be adapted to the specific situation, and by applying them you will get better at maintaining your focus on what is important rather than being interrupted by what is not critical at the moment.

Don’t expect that changing your behavior will be easy. We have been susceptible to distractions and interruptions for our entire lives, but technology’s impact on the Distracted Mind has caused us to overindulge. Our ability to control our Distracted Mind has spiraled out of control because of the technological game changers that we discussed in Part II. This is why some people will feel as though they have no choice but to attempt a digital detox. As we have said in this chapter, we do not feel that drastic solutions are the answer. The strategies we have presented are less extreme and promise more likelihood of success.

Changing your behavior may not be easy, but it is doable. If you find yourself being distracted, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How might I increase my metacognitive view of how my own mind performs in a given situation, and in what ways are my actions not in line with how I should behave based on my goals and an understanding of my limitations?
  • How might I change my physical environment to reduce accessibility of potential distractors?
  • How might I assess whether I am self-interrupting because of boredom, and how might I make the task more interesting to stave off that boredom?
  • How might I recognize when my actions are driven by anxiety about missing out on something in my virtual world, and what steps can I take to reduce that anxiety?

If you follow the strategies outlined here, you will go a long way to avoid the pitfalls of distractions and interruptions, improve your cognitive control, reduce goal interference, and aid your Distracted Mind.

Adapted from The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Used with permission of MIT Press. Copyright © 2016 by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Gazzaley, A. & Rosen, L.D. (2016) The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Link)